Happy Musical Theatre Monday! Sometimes I approach people to write for the series because they’re clearly dying to do it. But sometimes I just decide people NEED TO and I force them like a big showtunes bully, because I am so sure they’re gonna write something great. This may have been the case this time. But, of course, I was right. (JUST SAYING.) So please welcome the amazing Jennifer Laughran to the blog! MAKE HER COMFORTABLE, GUYS.
JENNIFER LAUGHRAN: When Amy asked me to write about a musical, I had an excruciating time deciding which.
Should I talk about the first (very) amateur production I was ever in, my 4th Grade production of Mary Poppins, that taught me the bitter taste of jealousy as I got cast as a mere suffragette chorine rather than MP herself?
Or about the time I snuck out of school to get early tickets for Guys and Dolls when it was touring in Los Angeles, and they had a special promotional crap game with giant novelty-sized dice in front of the Pantages theatre, and I played and won a t-shirt and a cast recording, which was rad, but it was ON THE LOCAL NEWS and did I mention I’d DITCHED SCHOOL to be there?
Or perhaps the time that I got introduced to Nathan Lane by the stage door of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum but then I was so freaked out that I just cried and it was the most embarrassing moment of my life (until the same thing happened when I first met Judy Blume)? Or…or…or…yeah. I guess I have a lot of awkward theatre stories.
Before I worked in publishing, I went to a theatre conservatory, studied directing in college, and in my teens and early twenties had paying jobs as everything from box office to stage manager, dramaturg to puppet-builder, and everything in between. But when I was little, I really really really wanted to be an actress.
Specifically, I really really really wanted to be Annie. Annie the musical came out around the time I was born in the late ’70s, and though I never saw it live, the album of the B’way cast recording was one of the first I remember. I wore that album out. The ’80s Annie movie came out when I was wee and that was it for me — Annie was not just my favorite character but possibly my best friend. You can tell how obsessed I was by the fact that my great-grandmother got me commemorative Annie plates…and I still have them. (Here’s a picture!)
Despite the fact that I was white-blonde, afraid of dogs, a decent but not great voice, two left feet, and showed no particular signs of any other talent, when I was like 6 I became completely obsessed with some rumor I’d heard, or invented, that there was soon going to be an Annie 2, and if I could get to the audition, I would get my turn as the red-headed, dog-loving, singing, tapping star. Obviously I would be PERFECT for the role. I “practiced” belting out “Tomorrow” ceaselessly in preparation (sorry Mom). But I was not Andrea McArdle or Aileen Quinn, not even close. And even in my deluded, Annie-addled state, I knew it.
I did have some sort of epiphany about this at some point and decided that, since plays and movies take so long to make and I’d age out of the role of Annie in the mythical Annie 2 anyway, I’d probably be better off being Pepper. She’s older, and all she has to do is be a bitch to everyone.
(In fact, much later, there WAS an Annie 2 — Miss Hannigan’s Revenge started previews in 1989 and went terribly, never making it to Broadway. It was then reworked and became Annie Warbucks, and opened in the early ’90s. Needless to say, I was too old to be an Orphan by then. Even Pepper.)
Anyway, in case you don’t know Annie (who the hell doesn’t know Annie??? Get out from under your rock, friend!) — here’s the basics. It’s based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie and set in the 1930s.
There’s an orphanage — the kids are sad, but plucky. Our star Annie is the smartest orphan, and the only ginger, and the MOST plucky (obvs). Annie is also a little different from the other orphans in that she has “real parents” who she thinks are still alive. She wears a broken locket around her neck — when she was left at the orphanage, her parents left a note saying they’d be back for her with the other half of the locket to know them by. She sings the extremely affecting song “Maybe” late at night, praying/dreaming about what her real parents are like and wondering when they’ll come for her.
“Hard Knock Life” is all about the insane chores the orphans have to do. The movie did a nice job with the choreography on this one; it’s a really fun number. (I became an expert on somersaults and handsprings on and off beds due to this song. Also, learned what a Mickey Finn is.) We also get our first taste of the boozehound orphanage director Miss Hannigan (played to perfection in the movie by Carol Burnett).
Annie runs away and picks up a stray dog named Sandy. She sings her most famous song, “Tomorrow” – which is about being cheerful, or some shit. Annie is RELENTLESSLY CHEERFUL, even in the case of obvious awful circumstances, like being starving in the street and having a dog steal your only scrap of food etc.
Annie ends up getting sent back to the orphanage, and she brings the dog. Miss Hannigan is a total psycho in a Kurt Weill kind of way and sings a drunken burlesque number about murdering children. Good times.
Oh and because it is the 1930s and actually a lot about class and class mobility, there is a lot of stuff about Herbert Hoover and Hoovervilles and economic collapse and dancing hobos, etc. I didn’t get all this when I was little obviously. But it is actually important to the story. Anywhoo, the basic point is, it’s the depression. There’s a super-rich robber baron called Mr. Warbucks. How rich is he? He has not one but TWO foreign caricature sidekick/bodyguard/manservant/stereotypes, Punjab and The Asp.
For PR purposes (because everyone basically thinks he is terrible, which he sort of is), Mr. Warbucks wants to invite a boy orphan to spend Christmas at his mansion. His glamorous lady secretary arranges it, but there’s a screw-up, and Annie ends up getting picked up instead. There’s a great number “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” that is a “we’re your nimble servants” number in the vein of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast.
Needless to say, Egomaniacal Mr. Warbucks doesn’t WANT a little girl orphan. Whoopsie! But guess what? The sassy little ginger and her mutt win him over. They go to Radio City Music Hall, walk the streets of NYC, etc. Cut to, heart of ice melting, he decides he wants to keep her. BUT! She still thinks her parents are coming for her. Daddy Warbucks vows that he’ll do anything to find her parents if they are out there, and if they aren’t, THEN he can adopt her. He offers a huge reward for anyone who can prove that they are Annie’s parents and there’s a media blitz over it.
BUT! The evil Miss Hannigan, her brother Rooster (played by Tim Curry in the movie) and his moll (Bernadette Peters) come up with a scheme. They know about the locket. They have the other half, because Annie’s real parents are long dead. And Rooster and the moll are going to pretend to be Annie’s parents, take her, take the dough Warbucks is offering, and then KILL ANNIE! (Cue dramatic music!)
At this point, naturally, Daddy Warbucks decides to take his adorable ward to the White House to hang out with FDR and give him advice on foreign policy. Because that is totally normal. (In the movie I don’t think they make it quite clear that Warbucks and FDR are on opposite sides, politically — the play makes it much more clear.) Annie’s sage advice is basically, “hey the depression can’t last forever CHIN UP!” – she sings a reprise of “Tomorrow” and FDR and the cabinet love it. Annie is not just a plucky little orphan, she’s now a celeb and an AMERICAN HERO.
Spoiler alert: the Plucky Orphans kind of save the day, Daddy Warbucks ends up realizing his secretary would be a perfect wife and mother to Annie, and there’s a happy ending for FDR and everyone except the villains, who get appropriately handled, AND there is a party with fireworks at the end. Perfection.
- Plucky Orphans are awesome and smarter than bad guys.
- Wealthy Egomaniacal Industrialists are really just looking for affection.
- EVERY story would be better with a gigantic party at the end.
Jennifer Laughran is a literary agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, based in New York. She went from reading children’s books to selling them with her first job in a bookstore at age 12, and has been up to her neck in kids and YA books ever since. She represents many popular and award-winning children’s authors, all of whom are adorable geniuses. You can find out more about Jenn on twitter, @literaticat, and about the agency at www.andreabrownlit.com.